A certain disparity exists between all works of literature and their film adaptations, as it does between Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (“the Novel”) and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner (“the Film”). While there are similarities between the first scenes of the Film and the Novel (in dialogue and the initial impression that one gets of many of the characters), there are also differences between each work, making them two very different stories with very different concerns. While the Novel illuminates a wide range of topics from humanity, relationships, technology and religion to environment, war and animal extinction, the Film focuses primarily on artificiality, romance, relationships and mortality.
Rick Deckard is a Bladerunner, meaning he kills or “retires” androids called “replicants.” Deckard’s latest assignment is to find and retire a group of replicants that has escaped from Earth’s space colonies. In the Film, there is no higher motivation within his will to carry out his assignment – as there is in the Novel – than that he doesn’t sense he has a choice. Hunting these particular androids is not an optional task. It is an order.
In contrast, in the Novel, Deckard vies for a higher position within his department and is eager for the challenge, though his enthusiasm is quickly dampened by the reality of his mission and all of the philosophical issues that it unearths for him. His aim in the Novel is to find some peace and answers to his questions about god and humanity. He seeks these answers through Mercerism and holds tight to the notion that in order to progress and be better, he must have a real, living animal. In order to get one, he must retire androids so that he can earn money. This theme does not exist in the Film, therefore, the impression of Deckard as a needy or vulnerable individual in search of answers, does not exist.
Because all of these details are absent from the Film, there is far less complexity attached to Deckard’s motivations or his life in general. However, in the Novel, there is a sense that Deckard is battling a deadness that is trying to creep inside of him, that there is death all around him, that his life is drenched in heartbreak and disappointment. In the Novel, he is in a perpetual state of questioning and anxiety and exploration, while in the Film he is a far more one-dimensional character. In the Film, he is just Deckard, the kickass bladerunner who does the necessary dirty work, gets the girl, but ends up sad because her time is running out. With the exception of one inexplicable scene where Deckard has a vision of a unicorn bounding through a forest, he does not writhe in the throes of spiritual madness or seek to experience a connection with nature or divinity. He does not wake up in the morning to a human wife who might as well be artificial for all her authenticity and he does not have the option of programming his mood.
Harrison Ford, as Rick Deckard, has no wife and no electric sheep, there is no religious theme in the Film and no mood-altering module, and the status of owning an animal is not exemplified or in any way significant (though the Film does put an emphasis on artificiality as it pertains to animals and technology). This affects the impression that the viewer gets of Deckard in the Film. Harrison Ford is not the same Deckard as in the novel, a man who desperately wants something to make him complete as a person. Rather than going to an animal market with the heartfelt wish to acquire a real animal of his own, in the Film Deckard goes to the animal market during the course of investigating rogue androids. The Novel focuses heavily on the aftershocks of war and extinction and how it has impacted the religious and philosophical landscape of this world. The Film portrays a future where artificiality blends with reality and blurs completely. It is in this setting that we are faced with questions about highly advanced technology, love and survival, and whether or not one impacts our understanding of another.
Starting out in the Film, Deckard’s primary aim is to get through the day, accomplish what needs to be done, and to get some food and sleep. Everything else is beyond his control and the last thing he really seems interested in is inviting anyone or anything else into his life. This is a fundamental departure from Deckard’s character in the Novel and changes the entire basis for his behavior. In the Film, it is not religion or spirituality that Deckard is grappling with, it is not a messiah or a better mood that he needs. He does not need a wife who displays something more than programmed feelings or an animal to love and care for; in the Film, Deckard needs to be touched by humanity (or perhaps just by the perfect woman) and to come to grips with his own mortality, though he is unaware of these needs until later in the Film.
As the Film relates to humanity and mortality, we are better off examining the replicants than Deckard. Just how un-empathetic or unfeeling are they? How the audience perceives these replicants differs greatly from the Novel to the Film, and I think that ultimately the audience cares more about their fate as they are portrayed in the latter. Take Deckard’s relationship with Rachael. In the Novel, the attraction between them results in Deckard committing adultery, while Rachael turns out to be a conniving android wholly devoid of empathy or real emotion and poised for vitriol and revenge. In the Film, their relationship is sweet and Rachael has no ill intentions – only precious vulnerabilities. Deckard is gruff at first when he tells Rachael that she is an android, that her memories are implanted and nothing that she thinks is real is actually so. But when he sees her tears, his heart springs to life. He offers to bring her a drink. She leaves without accepting it, taking her grief with her. Deckard feels slightly dejected in her absence. This scene differs greatly from those between Rachael and Deckard in the Novel. This scene reveals the loneliness and despair that hangs like a fog in both of their lives. There is a sense that they need one another. Any perception of a genuine bond between them is shattered in the Novel when Rachael shows her true android colors and Deckard’s problems in the Novel have less to do with loneliness than they do with trauma and adversity.